There was a time when summer TV meant nothing but reruns and bottom-of-the-barrel one-off series: the network equivalent of a clearance sale, as networks marked time until the fall sweeps and Emmy season.
Those days are not quite behind us, but we’re getting there. This year’s summer TV season is an odd mix of chaff and diamonds, with heavy-hitters like True Detective airing alongside a slew of new and recurring dramas reaching for that “prestige television” designation — as well as both historic specials and last gasps from increasingly irrelevant genres. We’re here to guide you through which is which.
Mad Men-Shaped 1960s
For the Mad Men-Shaped Hole in Your Heart
Masters of Sex (Season 3)
You Might Recognize: Lizzy Caplan (The Interview, Party Down, Mean Girls) — and not many others. But then how many people did you recognize when you first watched Mad Men?
The Gist: The critically lauded and mostly fictionalized trials and tribulations of two researchers taking the study of human sexuality to new frontiers just as the Sexual Revolution starts heating up. Like Kinsey if you replaced Liam Neeson with a hot young couple.
Best For: People who didn’t watch Mad Men for the board meetings (roughly half of you).
Where and When: Showtime, Sundays @ 10/9C (premieres July 12).
You Might Recognize: David Duchovny (Californication, The X-Files), Gethin Anthony (Game of Thrones — think “shadow baby”).
The Gist: A hippie-hating veteran and LAPD sergeant pairs with an undercover cop, infiltrating the flower children to investigate a missing persons case — which eventually leads to Charles Manson.
Best For: Nostalgic True Detective fans; the morally bankrupt.
Where and When: NBC, Thursdays @ 9/8C (premiered May 28).
The Astronaut Wives Club
You Might Recognize: Nobody — but your daughter or niece might.
The Gist: Series follows the wives of astronauts in the 1960s; based on a novel based on a true story.
Best For: Anyone who thought Apollo 13 was a bit of a sausage fest.
Where and When: ABC, Thursdays @ 8/7C (premieres June 18).
Because You’re a Scripted Comedy Snob
“I Learned That in my Sketch-Writing Class”
You Might recognize: Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. the Rock).
The Gist: A handful of former pro athletes navigate the world of business after leaving sports behind.
Best For: Anyone who didn’t skip the previews for this one before Game of Thrones.
Where and When: HBO, Sundays @ 10/9C (premieres June 21).
Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp
You Might Recognize: The vast majority of the original cast, plus John Hamm, John Slattery, Kristen Wiig and a few others.
The Gist: A prequel to the original cult favorite Wet Hot American Summer, which satirized summer camp movies and made for a who’s-who of several comedic actors who would permeate the decade that followed.
Best For: Fans of the original; those prone to saying “Where have I seen that guy?” in the middle of shows and movies.
Where and When: Netflix, available July 31.
Married (Season 2)
You Might Recognize: Judy Greer (Archer, Arrested Development), Jenny Slate (Parks & Recreation, Obvious Child), Nat Faxon (writer, The Descendants).
The Gist: A couple struggles to enliven their longtime marriage while raising children and maintaining relationships with their younger friends.
Best For: Vicariously addressing marital doldrums.
Where and When: Thursdays @ 10:30/9:30C (premieres July 16).
Why? With Hannibal Buress
You might recognize: Hannibal Buress (comedy, various guest appearances); a variety show format that’s been making a bit of a comeback (think Chappelle).
The Gist: Over eight episodes, topics are explored through standup, interviews, man-on-the-street segments and sketches.
Best For: Standup enthusiasts.
Where and When: Comedy Central, Wednesdays @ 10:30/9:30C (premieres July 8).
Dubiously Accurate Speculative Sci-Fi
It’s All a Metaphor
You Might Recognize: The Wachowskis (Jupiter Ascending, Cloud Atlas, The Matrix).
The Gist: Eight strangers across the world find themselves mentally linked with one another (rather than a giant computer, like The Matrix), sharing experiences, memories, skills and thoughts.
Best For: Stoner Buddhists (again, like The Matrix).
Where and When: Netflix (available June 8).
You Might Recognize: Cristian Slater (the 1980s).
The Gist: A young programmer (Malik) who moonlights as a vigilante hacker is hired by the leader (Slater) of a group of vigilante hackers to wage cyberwarfare against his day job.
Best For: Anyone whose idea of a hacker comes from cable news.
Where and When: USA, Wednesdays @ 10/9C (available June 8).
Extant (Season 2)
You Might Recognize: Halle Berry; produced by Steven Spielberg.
The Gist: An astronaut (Berry) returns home after a 13-month solo mission and finds herself pregnant after years of being barren; the baby turns out to be an alien. Season two will deal with the fallout from her robot son’s (so, the alien’s half-brother’s) attempt to destroy humanity. (See also: Steven Spielberg’s new show, which is also about aliens.)
Best For: Anyone wondering what the hell Halle Berry’s been up to lately.
Where and When: CBS, Wednesdays @ 10/9C (premieres July 1).
You Might Recognize: William Hurt (A History of Violence), lots of Brits.
The Gist: Robot servants that look like humans, in the suburbs.
Best For: Anyone who liked Ex Machina; anyone disappointed by Ex Machina and hoping someone gives the concept another shot.
Where and When: AMC, Sundays @ 9/8C (premieres June 28).
Because You Watched Downtown Abbey and a Snuff Film Back to Back
Murder, Mayhem and Imperialism!
Penny Dreadful (Season 2)
You Might Recognize: Eva Greene, Timothy Dalton; produced by John Logan and Sam Mendes (of Skyfall and the upcoming Spectre, among others).
The Gist: Dorian Gray, the Frankenstein monster, Dracula‘s Van Helsing and a slew of others live — for brevity’s sake — in an alternate dimension of 19th-century England. Lots of gore and sex ensues.
Best For: Those bored with American Horror Story, or who miss the gore, sex and/or gory sex of True Blood.
Where and When: ShowTime, Sundays @ 10/9C (premiered May 3).
The Strain (Season 2)
You Might Recognize: Corey Stoll (House of Cards, The Normal Heart), David Bradley (think “Red Wedding”); produced by Guillermo del Toro.
The Gist: To quote The AV Club: “The Walking Dead with vampires.” A family endures the biological apocalypse in New York City, while the master of the vampires looms large.
Best For: Fans of del Toro; anyone who hasn’t had enough vampires yet.
Where and When: FX, Sundays @ 10/8C (premieres July 12).
Because You Obsessed Over Serial
“Lemme Know When You Finish It, I Have a Theory”
Rectify (Season 3)
You Might Recognize: Abigail Spencer (True Detective, Suits, many others), Adelaide Clemens (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Great Gatsby).
The Gist: An ex-convict, exonerated of erroneous murder charges and death sentence after 19 years in prison, returns home. His case is reopened and boils to a head once more.
Best For: People who always find themselves pitching SundanceTV to their friends.
Where and When: SundanceTV, 10/9C (premieres July 9).
Deep Web: The Untold Story of Bitcoin and the Silk Road
You Might Recognize: Some headlines from Wired.
The Gist: This documentary explores the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht, recently convicted creator of an online black market, featuring interviews with the designers and denizens of the Deep Web.
Best For: People who know about this stuff; people who think they know about this stuff.
Where and When: Epix, premiered May 31.
Because You Read Thinkpieces
And Share Them Incessantly on Facebook
I Am Cait
You Might Recognize: Caitlyn Jenner (the entire past month).
The Gist: Documentary series following Caitlyn Jenner’s soon-to-be-historic transition from man to woman.
Best For: Anyone who’s been paying attention.
Where and When: E!, Sundays @ 9/8C (premieres July 26)
You Might Recognize: The proud nation of Canada.
The Gist: In a small town, a virus kills everyone over the age of 21. Speculation and support for the quarantined town erupts on Twitter.
Best For: Social media hounds.
Where and When: Netflix, new episodes available every Thursday (premiered May 21).
You Might Recognize: David Oyelowo (Selma).
The Gist: In this feature, a veteran of the war in the Middle East murders his mother and lives with her corpse; he breaks down further in anticipation of a visit from an old friend.
Best For: Actors looking for monologues to perform
Where and When: HBO, debuts at 9/8C, May 29.
You Might Recognize: Current events.
The Gist: This documentary follows a small Georgia county’s first integrated high school prom after years of segregation.
Best For: Starting some chilly conversations at your next family gathering.
Where and When: HBO, debuts at 9/8C, May 18.
Because You’re Probably Watching It Already
Or At Least You Should Be
True Detective (Season 2)
You Might Recognize: Collin Farrell, Vince Vaughan, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, Kelly Reilly.
The Gist: Few details have surfaced about the story of season two other than that it involves a war veteran-turned-cop and a career criminal-turned-entrepreneur.
Best For: Silently declaring your undying devotion to HBO.
Where and When: HBO, Sundays 10/9C, June 21.
Orange Is the New Black (Season 3)
You Might Recognize: Big Important Issues (TM).
The Gist: The third season of the groundbreaking Netflix original sees the protagonist’s struggle with the return of a love interest, one beloved character’s struggle with heroin, and the new warden’s struggle to turn a new leaf for the prison.
Best For: When you need a “my life isn’t so bad” moment (or, for binge-watchers, a whole day of them).
Where and when: Netflix, available June 12.